Former therapists treating sex offenders say hostile work conditions are hurting those who need help

Former therapists treating sex offenders say hostile work conditions are hurting those who need help
Young Kwak
Antonia Tombari says a hostile work environment caused her to have panic attacks and to lose sleep.

A former therapist treating sex offenders at the Airway Heights Corrections Center says her superiors created a toxic work environment, berated her, barred her from talking with colleagues and, at least in one instance, falsified records in an effort to keep one particular offender behind bars.

Antonia Tombari has lodged a complaint with the state Department of Health and, last month, filed a $1.5 million legal claim against the Department of Corrections accusing her former bosses of creating a hostile workplace that harmed the treatment of the very people the therapists are tasked with helping. Her claim names Renee Schuiteman, the program's manager at Airway Heights Corrections Center, and Kris Smith, her direct supervisor. Both declined to comment for this article.

Other former therapists in Airway Heights and internal DOC records paint a picture of a dysfunctional workplace plagued by hostility and fears of retaliation for not falling in line with the program's managers.

"I encountered significant problems within management," says Troy Bruner, a psychologist and former employee who has also filed a claim against the DOC. "Any employee who voiced opinions independent of two members of the management team was viewed as a threat. That person was then targeted with demeaning treatment and false allegation until they quit."

Therapist turnover has been a significant problem, records indicate. Since 2011, 29 people have resigned from the state program at Airway Heights Corrections Center, and 23 resigned from the program at Monroe Correctional Complex.

Additionally, in her complaint to the Department of Health, Tombari, a therapist licensed through the state, accuses Kris Smith, her former boss, of falsifying the treatment record for one of her former clients, Nathan Smith (no relation), in what Tombari says is an effort to keep him incarcerated.

Tombari, who resigned from DOC in March of this year, says that shortly before her last day, she noticed an entry in Nathan Smith's treatment record saying he was being suspended from the program for "inappropriate behavior," according to internal emails.

"He wasn't supposed to be terminated at all," she says, adding that being suspended from treatment for bad behavior would hurt his chances of release.

Tombari fired off emails to Kris Smith and other DOC employees asking for an explanation.

A secretary responded: "Kris told me to put him on stop out and that he will be terminated due to behavioral issues...Kris?? Please advise."

DOC spokesman Jeremy Barclay declined to answer specific questions about Schuiteman and Kris Smith, citing open state investigations against the two. Schuiteman is under internal investigation by the DOC while the Department of Health is investigating Kris Smith.

Cathi Harris, the director of the state's sex offender treatment program, also declined a request for an interview.

Emails show that Tombari continued to ask whether the false information would be removed from Nathan Smith's record. In an email on March 15, the acting program manager, Brent Borg, who is filling in while Schuiteman is under investigation, confirms that the entry has been deleted.

In November, Nathan Smith is scheduled to appear before the Indeterminate Sentencing Review Board, a panel of four people appointed by the governor who decide whether offenders are fit to be released into the community. A major consideration in the decision to release offenders is their level of success in treatment.

Tombari, for her part, has recommended that Nathan Smith be released, and will testify in front of the board, if permitted. She says he has gone beyond the required assignments and is a shining example of the program's positive results.

"He really is an example of someone who has been rehabilitated, someone who isn't going to harm someone else," she says. "I would bet my life on it."

Nathan Smith, 39, says he's speaking with the Inlander not to bolster his shot at freedom, but to call attention to concerns with the treatment program. He says he will accept whatever fate the board decides and questions whether he ever deserves to draw a breath of free air. He believes forgiveness is not his to ask for.

"It's important for me to make clear that I'm guilty of the crimes I'm in here for," he says in a phone interview from the Airway Heights Corrections Center. "I did commit rape and arson. I am where I deserve to be. I don't think I'm entitled to be released. All I want is a fair shot."

What Nathan Smith has done, and fully admits to, is heinous. The worst stomach-turning details of his crimes will not be printed here, but in January 2009, the Army veteran kidnapped, tortured and raped a prostitute in Tacoma. He shocked her with a cattle prod and, afterward, showed her graphic images of his time in combat: dead bodies, exploded bodies, a face blown off by a bomb.

He paid her $500 and said he would kill her if she went to the cops.

Two nights later, he kidnapped another woman working as a prostitute, intending to repeat his crimes. She escaped from his home.

Smith then set fire to evidence in his upstairs bedroom and stuck a shotgun under his chin. But he decided against ending his life. He fled Washington state and was eventually arrested by police in Texas, where he was raised. He would later plead guilty to rape, attempted rape and arson and was sentenced to a minimum of 11 years in prison.

Nathan Smith began treatment in 2017, shortly before Tombari started working as a therapist in May of that year. He says that the treatment program has helped him identify and understand the underlying behavior and mindset that led to his offenses and has given him tools to overcome them in the future.

"Those assignments forced me to get down to the granular level of what I was telling myself that allowed me to think these things were OK," he says. "Understanding that and understanding how to take apart distortions in my thinking — that's a big part of the therapy."

Soon after she started as a therapist, Tombari took over an outgoing therapist's caseload, which included running group therapy sessions for about 12 men.

Shortly after, Tombari says she identified two men in the group who were scheduled to successfully complete the program, but who she recommended for removal. One man blamed his 6-year-old victim for "initiating it," and the other showed hostility toward women. Such behavior degrades treatment for the rest of the group, Tombari says.

She recommended they be civilly committed to the Special Commitment Center on McNeil Island, where sex offenders can be held indefinitely if they pose a risk to public safety.

Tombari says she refused a direction from Kris Smith to not document her recommendation in her clinical notes, a violation of clinical ethics and best practice, therapists say, as well as DOC's internal policy. From then on, she says, it was like she had a target on her back.

Tombari says Schuiteman and Kris Smith interrogated her about her personal life — asking about her kids' nanny and whether she socialized with former DOC employees outside of work — but refused to tell her why. The questioning pushed her to the point that she started trembling and crying, she writes in her complaint to the DOC.

She says they also directed her not to socialize with certain current and former employees under thinly veiled threats that she would be fired.

"I would leave being extremely confused, and was told I couldn't tell anybody about it or I would lose my job," she says.

In January 2018, Tombari filed an internal complaint accusing Schuiteman and Kris Smith of psychological and verbal abuse.

In an email on Feb. 8, 2018, Cathi Harris, the director of the sex offender treatment program, writes to another DOC employee of her concern for the program under Schuiteman's watch.

"There has been one other complaint against the manager during my tenure, and I understand others prior to my coming to DOC," writes Harris, who was hired in 2016. "We also have a very high turnover rate, and I'm hearing that staff are afraid of the manager and she routinely threatens staff with write-ups in their files as well as losing their jobs."

That second complaint came in 2017 from Troy Bruner, who worked in a managerial position as a psychologist in the program.

Bruner alleges that Schuiteman would fail to notify him of meetings or would only notify him shortly before they began, hindering his ability to do his job. He also alleges that she falsely accused him of "problematic behaviors" without disclosing the source of her information.

"Her accusations against me have been so contrary to my behavior that I have concluded that she makes up stories and attributes them to anonymous employees," he writes in his complaint. "Further, I believe she has created a culture of fear and inhibition among some of the employees."

Two weeks before he filed his complaint, DOC opened an investigation into Bruner. Bruner, who is an aspiring comedian, was accused of making inappropriate, adult jokes. Bruner resigned in September 2017 before Harris, the program director, could make any final determination on the allegations against him.

Today, Bruner, the former chair of the city of Spokane's Ethics Commission, a panel of seven people charged with assessing ethics complaints against city employees, defends himself. He writes in an email that the investigation is another example of the retaliatory environment where employees who speak out against management are targeted.

"Although my story pales in comparison, I too was targeted," he writes. "I eventually resigned because I realized that the problems there were bigger than me or anything I could do about it." ♦

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About The Author

Mitch Ryals

Mitch covers cops, crime and courts for the Inlander. He moved to Spokane in 2015 from his hometown of St. Louis, and is a graduate of the University of Missouri. He likes bikes, beer and baseball. And coffee. He dislikes lemon candy, close-mindedness and liars. And temperatures below 40 degrees.